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Syria vote: celebrate but don’t forget to evaluate

After the Commons recall debate on Syria some commentators seem to have let their joy at seeing Cameron defeated get a little out of hand.. The defeat was important and all of us on the left are hoping that it will help Ed Miliband to be bolder and to challenge the neo-liberal ideas which still dominate too much Labour thinking.

The Syria debate was a welcome boost for Labour’s standing and for that of Ed Miliband. But if we are going to evaluate its significance then we need to look into the way Labour opposed the government motion. It did so with an amendment (effectively an alternative motion) which had six key points (after the condemnation of the killing of civilians in Ghutay on 21st August).

Let’s be clear, Labour’s points were not a rejection of military action but a set of conditions for conducting such action. The said that military action should only be conducted if

(a) The UN inspectors confirm that chemical weapons were used. In other words, no attack before the Inspectors report. The US was anxious to move faster and seem to have pressurised Cameron to fall into line.

Point (b) required “compelling evidence” that the Syrian government was responsible. Just what the nature of such “compelling evidence” should be and where it should come from was left entirely unspecified.

Point (c) required that “the UN Security Council has considered and voted on this matter in the light of the reports”. Note that the requirement here is only that the Security Council should have discussed and voted on the matter not that it should actually support military action.

According to (d) there should be “a clear legal basis in international law for taking collective military action”. Again, no specification of what this means. Would Labour be satisfied with the thoughts of the Attorney General on this as was David Cameron and as was Labour for the war on Iraq? We are not told.

Point (e) stipulated that “such action must have regard to the potential consequences in the region, and must therefore be legal, proportionate, time-limited and have precise and achievable objectives designed to deter the future use of prohibited chemical weapons in Syria;” This is all a matter of judgement, one’s take on global politics, one’s analysis of events in the Middle East as well as complicated detailed points about the likely short, medium and long turn consequences for Syria of military action. We have no information of Labour thinking on any of this.

And finally point (f) required that the PM reports back to the house on the above and that any consequential military action is time-limited and confined to the issue of chemical weapons use. What does this mean? What are the possible knock on effects? What happens if a plane is brought down? On such questions and many more we have no information.

The Labour amendment was thus predicated on the acceptance of Britain’s right to take action if a good case could be made to show that the Syrian government used chemical weapons at Gutah. In essence therefore Labour’s thinking was very close to that of the government. It was certainly not an anti-war position. It did not renounce the idea of Britain having some special duty along with the US to act as world policeman. And, given that it accepted the possibility of a need to bomb Damascus it in no way made clear how it thought the limited objectives it favours could be achieved beyond a vague idea of a warning punishment. Finally there was no attempt in Labour’s argument for its amendment to evaluate the possibility of unintended consequences of military action.

All in all Labour’s position was based on a very weak line of criticism of the government. Had Cameron had the wit to accept the amendment Labour could have been boxed into a corner if the weapons inspectors found clear evidence of chemical weapons and if further evidence pointed to the Syrian government.

Some react to all this by saying “Don’t ask where the grape comes from, eat it.” i.e. it doesn’t matter how the result was obtained all that matters is the outcome. No one attempting to lead a serious campaign whether political, military or otherwise can afford to take such an off-hand approach to evaluating the their position and the prospects for further advance.


  1. Mike says:

    I very much agree with this analysis of the weaknesses of the front bench position. But what forced the leadership to differentiate itself from Cameron was the widespread public opposition to military intervention, over 70%. This was reflected in some interesting contributions in the debate, not just from the left, such as John McDonnell (see but also from Kate Hoey, Jim Fitzpatrick, Clive Efford and David Anderson.

    Now there is increasing doubt about whether the alleged chemical attack was perpetrated by the Assad regime at all. A new report is circulating that the rebels have admitted responsibility ( and a former Bush official says it may have been Israel.
    ( these stories come from respectable sources.

  2. Rob the cripple says:

    As you can see on the site lots of arguments about Syria, but not to many comments, did Miliband play a blinder if he did I suspect he did not mean it.

    But a blinder when we see people being killed and the use of Gas not pretty, many agreed it was used and it was Assad although I’m not so sure.

    But we are told not it was not a hundred killed it was thousands, but worse is that 2 million refugees are on the move.

    Should we be with the USA I do not know I’m tired of wars for all the wrong reasons and I do not trust the so called freedom fighters to not have used gas to get the west involved..

    Should we sit in our planes and bomb the cities or the so called factories right next to schools and hospital these despots seem to build these factories next to schools and hospitals.

    Do we think the Russians will back off and do nothing, big risk because if they do decide Assad is worth protecting we are one step closer to a major incident.

    I do not know but I’m tired of seeing our leaders one day kissing the face of Gaddafi and or Saddam or Assad and the next day kicking the bloke, Labour at one time or another believed Saddam to be a hero, Gaddafi was without doubt Blair’s mate, and so was Assad, and now of course they are tyrants.

    But we are told forget New labour it’s dead, this is Newer Labour.

    let France have it’s day of being blamed for the death of thousand by bombing the schools and hospitals, I’m sure their public will understand.

  3. John p Reid says:

    Gadaffi, Blair and new labours mate, well he didnt help Livingstone and the IRA, he didnt send money to the NUM, or back labour M.P Ron brown, who was very much old labour,

  4. Peter Rowlands says:

    A very well argued piece which makes it clear that Labour is where it is more by luck than having a decent policy.

  5. Rob the cripple says:

    John your love affair with Blair is nice I’m sure your Tony thinks he can always count on you, your hate for Livingstone is well known.

    Sadly John the rest of us know why Blair went to war, poodle lap dog and money

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